Let’s face it, there’s no reason for me to give you a quick synopsis of what happened at the Battle of Waterloo, what led to the Battle of Waterloo, why it mattered, or the battle’s social/political/artistic impact. If you are reading this on or soon after June 18, 2015, blog posts and news articles related to the 200th anniversary of Waterloo* are everywhere, in both History Land and the mainstream media of your choice. It will be harder for you to avoid reading about the battle than to read about it.
I had planned to give you a list of Waterloo books that you might have missed, or forgotten about.** Instead I’d like to share with you one of the oddest bits of Waterloo trivia that I’ve read in recent weeks: “Waterloo teeth”.
Rotten teeth were a significant problem in the long eighteenth century*** and false teeth were problematic. They were expensive. They were heavy. Many of the materials used to make them–wood, ivory, and bone–were themselves prone to decay, which resulted in nasty breath and nastier infections. The best material for making replacement teeth was actual teeth. (Are you grimacing in disgust, yet?) Prior to the Napoleonic wars, real-teeth dentures were made with teeth from executed criminals, exhumed bodies, or animals. Gumming your food may well have looked like a better choice.
The denture industry took an upward turn at the end of the eighteenth century when the Napoleonic wars produced a ready supply of young healthy tooth donors. Teeth stolen from the from the bodies of fallen soldiers became the preferred material for dentures, which became known as “Waterloo teeth”.
Makes you want to floss right now, doesn’t it?
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Here’s a little something to take the taste out of your mouth:
*It is worth pointing out that Waterloo is shorthand for three battles fought over a period of several days. Napoleon’s army defeated the Prussians at the Battle of Ligny and forced the combined British-Dutch forces to withdraw from Quatre-Bras on June 16.
**Okay, just one, which I haven’t yet read. The Sage of Waterloo, in which novelist Leona Francombe tells the story of the battle from the perspective of a bunny living on the modern site of the battlefield. Watership Down meets Vanity Fair?
***One of the side-effects of inexpensive sugar from the Caribbean islands. The empire strikes back.